A huge print of David Bowie’s self-titled album cover. Neon tubing inside the frame of a painting. A tube-shaped sculpture made of suspended rice paper. What do these all have in common?
The fall exhibition lineup for the Vancouver Art Gallery.
On October 17, three new exhibitions opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery: Victor Vasarely, Op Art in Vancouver, and Uncommon Languages. Op Art in Vancouver was developed in conjunction with Victor Vasarely, while Uncommon Languages responds to themes throughout Vasarely’s work, specifically that of a “universal visual language.”
So this review is a buy one get two free. Lucky you!
Imagine you’re standing in front of a huge painting. Taller than you, if you were the approximate size of, say, a 5’5” man. The painting is of a grid. Small black diagonal squares — like they’ve been italicized — against a white background.
Except some of the squares are going the wrong way. No matter how long you look at it, your eyes keep going back to those squares, the ones that are pointed in the opposite direction as the rest. There isn’t a pattern of directions reversed. There are just three splotches of nonconformity. But it makes the whole painting jump; you can almost see a weird moving S shape in the grid of squares — except there definitely isn’t one. You’re seeing things.
That’s Vasarely, baby.
Victor Vasarely was a Hungarian-French artist renowned for his colourful abstract patterns and largely credited as being the father of the Op art movement. Op art, short for optical art, is simply art that plays with optical illusions.
When I think of optical illusions, I jump past pieces that invoke movement or depth in a completely still 2D surface. I tend to look for works which make you squint really hard to see the young woman instead of the old lady. To be fair, those are both optical illusions. But this exhibit, which focuses on Vasarely’s work from the 1960s and ’70s, is much more the former.
It’s simplistic and highly abstract. Shapes and colours.
Vasarely worked with such simple shapes and a limited palette for a straightforward reason: he wanted to create a universal visual language. Like, really wanted. Victor Vasarely doesn’t just contain paintings. There are sculptures, books, an album cover, a tea set, screenprints, a mass-produced woven piece and what basically amounts to a board game. (Called Planetary Folklore, it’s basically a build-your-own-Vasarely kit, with patterns matching his actual pieces.)
Despite his impressive breadth of mediums, the pieces I kept returning to were his paintings. I think it’s the scale that gets to me. From far away, they look simple and clean, experiments in design and colour.
But if you get close enough, you can still see the brushstrokes; the medium betrays the presence of the artist.
Sorry, Vasarely. There’s no universality. It’s all just you, all the way down.
Op Art in Vancouver
Unsurprisingly, Op Art in Vancouver is about the emergence of Op Art in Vancouver during the late 1950s and early ’60s. This small exhibition is the bridge between Victor Vasarely and Uncommon Language — quite literally because you have to walk through it to get from one exhibit to the other.
While the pieces in Vasarely played with literal optical illusions to convey a sense of movement or depth, the Op-art here is just as concerned with challenging what the viewer expects to see as it is with challenging how the viewer sees.
Which is to say: most of the pieces in Op Art in Vancouver are paintings or screenprints — weird ones. (Neon tubing! Mirrors! Mirrors in the paintings!)
In fact, there’s this fun divide in Op Art in Vancouver between pieces that are noticeably visually jarring and pieces that look essentially identical to contemporary graphic design.
With digital art software, straight lines and solid colours are easy, or at least, easier than they are with paint on canvas. Which is, in itself, something a lot of people don’t think about often, because straight lines and solid colours are meant to look easy.
Why am I so emotional about straight lines? Michael Morris, that’s why.
Michael Morris is one of the artists in Op Art in Vancouver. The thing that set Morris’s work apart for me — aside from the mirrors and plexiglass — was the fact that, unlike a lot of his peers, Morris painted without the aid of masking tape and paint rollers, which were used to create the sharp lines and smooth surface that feels so graphic design-y about op art.
The lines in Morris’s work wobble. They’re clearly and visibly imperfect. Yet his design compositions are just as abstract and shape oriented as his counterparts in Op Art in Vancouver. It’s surreal as hell to look at. I highly recommend looking at it.
Uncommon Language is the third exhibition in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s fall lineup and the most visually distinct. Quite simply, it’s not op art. While Op Art in Vancouver explores how Op art traditions emerged locally, Uncommon Languages addresses the thematic undertones of Vasarely’s work, specifically his desire for a universal visual language.
But, once you think about it, the concept of a universal visual language is, in a lot of ways, not all that utopian. In fact, it’s deeply Eurocentric, not to mention colonialist. You idealize the concept of a single universal language when society’s standards of “universal” have always included you.
Uncommon Language is a broad and vast exhibition in subject, medium and tone. There’s a marble bench, several poems, a mask, a painting leaned against the wall, a row of books painted black, spliced-together videos of people exercising — it’s a lot.
The pieces here not only expand on a desire for universality and question whose voices are and aren’t being heard, they also challenge the viewer’s expectations of art, similar to op art. It’s just more … conceptual. Like, if we lean a painting against a wall instead of hanging it up, how does that change how we approach the painting?
I agree. That question sounds incredibly conceited when I say it like that. But I also can’t describe how physically uncomfortable it was to see Andrew Dadson’s Black Lean Painting.
Even though Uncommon Language plays with thematic disruption and visual disruption, there is a third, more subtle layer of disruption going on, which is clearest to see in the presentation of Françoise Sullivan’s Dance in the Snow.
Dance in the Snow is a series of photographs of Sullivan performing a dance routine that only three people ever saw. (It was filmed, but the film was lost.) The photographs that comprise Dance in the Snow are presented next to an essay by Sullivan about the dance, published on the 30th anniversary of its single performance.
But the most riveting part of seeing this piece in Uncommon Language is the historical context that the didactic text — the gallery wall text — provides. This is context that Sullivan is deliberately not addressing in her work, or her reflection on her work, like how one of her dance instructors was known for appropriating African dance movements and percussion, or how Sullivan herself positions her reflection on this dance within colonialist tropes of being alone in a landscape.
Uncommon Language pulls a lot of big, theoretical punches. It’s a deeply thought-provoking exhibition.
But mostly, I wondered why it wasn’t the exhibition literally named after and focused on the works of Victor Vasarely that contextualized his desire for a universal visual language in the historical context of ongoing colonialism. Why it didn’t attempt to contextualize his work in any historical context aside from his fame in the 1960s and ’70s? Why it framed his use of mass production to make artwork more available as revolutionary, instead of, you know, deeply consumerist.
Is it a disservice to present something as simple when it’s actually complex? How much of a disservice, if at all? What might Victor Vasarely and Op Art in Vancouver have gained from talking about their historical contexts within those exhibitions?
I don’t know. But I wonder.
Victor Vasarely, Op Art in Vancouver and Uncommon Language will be open until April 5, 2021.
Weekend Round-Up: Stylish Set-Dressing, Madden Strategy, And Parisian Art – HODINKEE
Peter Schjeldahl has been the head art critic at The New Yorker since 1998. I would be lying to you if I said I was a frequent reader of his work, but I’ve always made it a point to bookmark his criticism when I stumble across it. That doesn’t mean I always return to it, mind you, but his writing generally ends up saved inside a perpetually growing list of need-to-read tabs on my laptop, waiting for me to grow restless enough to come back to it. This week, I opened up one of his more recently published pieces, The Art Of Dying, from December 2019. In this thoughtful piece of self-reflection, Schjeldahl discusses a recent lung cancer diagnosis, his years of sobriety, and how he’s lived his life thus far. Nothing is normal these days, and Schjeldahl’s writing here reminds us that we’re all nothing but a sum of our personal experiences and that how we tell our story truly matters. I highly recommend it.
– Logan Baker, Editor, HODINKEE Shop
Italian art gallery becomes a COVID-19 vaccine centre – The Globe and Mail
The Castello di Rivoli, near Turin, has been a marvel of reinvention over its thousand-year history. It has been a castle – castello in Italian – royal palace, military barracks, refugee centre and, lately, a UNESCO World Heritage site and art gallery.
In March or April, it will assume another role, COVID-19 vaccination centre, when the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, the site’s main tenant, opens its galleries to visitors who fancy combining a bit of culture with their inoculations.
The idea of turning one of Europe’s best-known contemporary art museums into a temporary health clinic was conceived by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 63, the museum’s American-Italian director. “Art has always helped and healed,” she said. “It provides an experience that includes and involves others and can be a form of therapy to treat trauma.”
While vaccinations are normally not considered traumatic experiences, getting one in an airy gallery might take the edge off any lingering jab anxiety. Polls suggest there is vaccine hesitancy among significant minorities of Europeans.
The vaccines will be administered in the third-floor gallery of the museum, where the walls are lined with the creations of Claudia Comte, a Swiss artist whose work, according to museum literature, comprises “large scale environmental installations … of a form of consciousness primarily shaped through the digital experience.”
While Ms. Comte’s art may not be to everyone’s taste, the gallery no doubt beats a sterile, windowless hospital room as a vaccination centre. Ms. Comte is also working on what Ms. Christov-Bakargiev called a “soothing, calming” soundtrack that will be played while medics administer the vaccines.
After they get their jabs, the newly inoculated will be allowed to wander the lower galleries (assuming Italian pandemic restrictions allow them to open), where one of the new installations will include Sex, by German visual artist Anne Imhof. Works by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Amadeo Modigliani are also on display.
The vaccinations will be done by the local health authority, which will have to ensure that the proper safety protocols are in place. Ms. Christov-Bakargiev said the museum should be ideal for the inoculation effort, since it is already equipped with thermal scanners and a climate-control system and has ample space for physical distancing, waiting rooms and vaccination booths. The third floor covers 10,000 square feet.
She said the idea of turning the museum into a vaccination centre came to her months ago but took on new urgency on Dec. 13, when museum chairman Fiorenzo Alfieri died of COVID-19 after a month-long illness. He was 77.
“The day after he died, I thought that I needed to do something more than close the museum during the pandemic and wait,” she said. “We had to do something more.”
Many museums and art galleries in Europe began as hospitals, including Les Invalides in Paris and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, home of Picasso’s Guernica. Castello di Rivoli is just doing it in reverse order – a museum that is becoming, in effect, a hospital.
According to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker, Italy, which has seen 83,000 pandemic deaths, had administered more than 1.2 million vaccine does by Jan. 19. Ranked by doses per 100 people, the tally puts it well ahead of the European Union average.
Italian health authorities are planning to open vaccination sites in public spaces across the country, including city squares. Cultura Italiae, a group of cultural leaders, has proposed that other museums and cultural centres copy the Castello di Rivoli vaccination model. After all, “public museums are committed to creating an accessible, pluralistic space to serve our community,” Ms. Christov-Bakargiev said.
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Chatham gallery creating art 'quilt' for Black History Month – CBC.ca
An arts organization in Chatham-Kent is looking for contributions for a unique community project to mark Black History Month.
The theme of the project is “celebrating Black lives” and the Thames Art Gallery and ARTspace are seeking submissions from the public for original works of art on the theme. The art can be any media, including painting, drawing and writing.
The public submissions will be combined and set up in a pandemic-friendly public display.
“What we’re having people do is produce a piece of work and then photograph it and then send it to us and we will print it out and then assemble it in the form of a quilt,” Phil Vanderwall, curator of the Thames Art Gallery, said on CBC Radio’s Windsor Morning on Friday.
The completed work will be displayed in the window of the ARTspace gallery on King Street in downtown Chatham.
“So it’s a nice public space,” he said.
The ‘quilt’ format of the project allows for community participation while preventing close contact. Both ARTspace and the Thames Art Gallery are closed due to COVID-19.
Vanderwall said quilt-making is currently undergoing a bit of a revival.
“This seemed like a good opportunity to explore that,” he said.
Submissions are already coming in and the deadline is Jan. 29 at 5:30 p.m.
The quilt will be unveiled Feb. 5 and will remain on display until Feb 26.
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